Palm Sunday

A reflection on Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew has been preparing us for this climactic episode in Jerusalem when the confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders must come to a head. Of the three pilgrimage festivals when all Jewish adult males were supposed to visit the Temple in Jerusalem (Passover, Weeks and Tabernacles) Passover seems to have been the most enthusiastically observed. Passover Pilgrims came not only from Galilee and other Palestinian provinces, but from all over the Mediterranean world where Jews were settled. A Galilean was basically a foreigner in Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples would normally have stuck out like a sore thumb. They may have been less conspicuous during Passover due to the crowd that swelled the city’s population to maybe triple its normal size. In chapter 20 v29 we learn that Jesus and the disciples were not travelling alone, they were part of a much larger group coming from Galilee for Passover. 

Clearly all of the elements of Jesus’ final approach to Jerusalem were deliberately orchestrated to make a point. Never before have we heard of Jesus travelling other than on foot or by boat, so why  does he now need a donkey to carry him the last mile or so to Jerusalem? Evidently it was done for a purpose. Surely this is reminiscent of King David  returning after the defeat of Absolom or Solomon riding on King David’s mule as he is being taken to Gihon to be made King. The symbolism here is that of royalty.

In verse 5 Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophet Zechariah (9 v9) who prophesied the coming of the ruler of God’s people. In verse 8 we hear of the people spreading their cloaks on the ground in a kind of makeshift red carpet which is reminiscent of the proclamation of Jehu as king in 2 Kings 9 v13. The branches cut for the trees were the palms from which Palm Sunday takes its name. The palm had long been a symbolism of Judaism and were, in effect, a way of saying “Romans go home”. 

But actually Jesus doesn’t arrive in Jerusalem until verse 10. So the people who are proclaiming Jesus as Messiah are the other pilgrims from Galilee who we are told in the text are travelling. It’s right there in verse 9. Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself. So clearly these are not the same people who will be shouting out for Jesus to be crucified later in the week. Just as Jesus has orchestrated his arrival in this way for maximum effect I would expect the Jewish authorities to have organised the crowd who are baying for blood on Good Friday. What other explanation can there be for two different calls coming from the masses, but they were two separate and distinct groups?

Jesus had arrived like a bull in a china shop and the Jewish authorities were going to be furious. Jerusalem was like a tinder box, especially at Passover, and they were afraid that Jesus and his disciples could be the spark that set the whole lot alight. So it seems we have quite a carnival atmosphere going on outside the walls of Jerusalem with the arriving pilgrims proclaiming Jesus as their King. Matthew tells us that Jerusalem was “in turmoil”, the place didn’t know what had hit it, most probably because the Judeans didn’t know who Jesus was.

So what does that have to do with us sitting in isolation (I keep saying hibernation)? Clearly the scene on the edge of Jerusalem was about people coming together and celebrating the arrival of their king. We are stuck in the dark days of an exceptional situation. A situation that raises the usual feelings of Lent to new levels. We are denied that most fundamental of our spiritual needs, we are denied the opportunity to gather together and worship our God.

But we can still be a community drawn together by our common love for our God. The greatest sign I have seen of a community drawn together in isolation during our current situation has been done by a brass band from Wales. The Cory Band have recorded a couple of videos. Each member of the band have filmed themselves playing their part at home and then the whole thing has been stitched together to form a whole. You can see the video on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0KiCXZ2IM0. There are also wonderful examples of churches coming together online to worship, I have especially noticed members of my All Saints community, who I am training with, doing stuff online. But equally those of us with less technical ability can keep in touch by phone and even video calls. At the very least if we just have a regular time to pray and we know that our brothers and sisters in Christ are praying at the same time it can help us to feel that we are not alone in our current difficulties. But my prayer for this difficult time is that we the Church can show the world that we have a God who loves us all more than we could ever understand. I pray that as our worship gets into peoples homes through their computer screens, their tablets and their smartphones that the word will spread. As a Church we spend a lot of time in Church hoping that new people will come along and join us. Now we are making the effort to get out there. We might just get into the nooks and crannies of peoples lives and shine the light of Christ on them. I don’t know why this situation has befallen the wold, but I know that God will use it as an opportunity to further his mission. We have to play our part in that. Thats what we signed up for when we became Christians, to do the leg work for God, so we need to listen to him. For many of us the hustle and bustle of every day life has calmed down in a way that was unimaginable just a couple of weeks ago. Let us use this time wisely to discern what God is calling us to do.

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